Not sure where to stay when you go to the Hill Country? Don't worry. I've found the best places, from a historic hotel to a caboose.
WHEN I’M QUEEN OF THE Universe, I’m going to ban the use of heart-shaped twig wreaths festooned with silk flowers. Ditto for coat racks decorated with metal cutouts of moose and fir trees, especially when used in areas bereft of moose and fir trees. This may cause folks who rent cabins and run cozy B&B inns in the Texas Hill Country some momentary interior decorating angst, but I think the cosmos will be a better place for the change. Until my laws are enacted, however, here’s a dozen places to spend the night that are, for the most part, already in compliance:
The Antlers Hotel is the kind of place that makes me wish I owned a full-length white linen dress with a blue satin sash (not to mention the nerve to wear such a getup). The expansive landscaped grounds of this century-old railroad hotel on the granite-lined shore of Lake LBJ beg to be strolled in such impractical garb—while sipping a mint julep and adjusting a beribboned straw boater, no less. You can chose from a nostalgia-inducing room in the two-story clapboard hotel, immaculately restored in 1996, or a private little cedar cabin in the woods. Train buffs or engineer wannabes have their choice of one of three vintage cabooses that have been converted to colorful and cozy accommodations or the deluxe McKinley private coach, a smart 1880’s wooden railcar. 1001 King, Kingsland, 915-388-4411, 800-383-0007, theantlers.com; doubles $110-$149.
After our night at the Opry (the Mason Country Opry, that is), my husband, Richard, and I stayed at the Mason Square Bed and Breakfast smack dab in the middle of the picturesque downtown. We’ve never felt so big-city urban in the middle of small-town Texas. While the three rooms on the second floor of this restored historic commercial building are pleasant enough (even though two are windowless), the real draws are the view of the courthouse from the communal balcony and the location just a couple of blocks from the Odeon Theater. Bonus: It’s only a few doors away from the Coffee Mug n’ More, a reader-friendly java joint with urban style (220 Fort McKavitt, 915-347-1600). 124 Fort McKavitt, Mason, 915-347-6398, 800-369-0405; doubles $65, serve-yourself continental breakfast included.
The restored two-room cottage on the grounds of Bandera’s old Silver Spur Dance Hall is as cute as it is cozy. And if guests want to expand their horizons past its painted limestone walls, they need only meander a short distance over to the roofless ruins of the Silver Spur perched on a cliff above the Medina River with a commanding view of the Cowboy Capital of Texas. Despite the fact that only the barest bones of the old ballroom remain, it’s easy to imagine when revelers packed this enormous venue back in the thirties, forties, and fifties, dancing the night away to country music and the sounds of the big bands. It’s a wonderful testament to the locals’ long-standing and serious commitment to having fun. Information on the Old Silver Spur Cottage can be found at Backroads Books, 1107 Cedar, Bandera, 830-796-7748, or at backroadstexas.net/silverspur.htm, 866-796-0660; double $90.
Some folks are born to be innkeepers and some folks are born to be innkeepers who shouldn’t be. Fortunately, Ken and Betty Wardlaw, owners of the historic Rockin’ River Inn in Center Point, fall squarely into the first category. They actually seem delighted to bake cookies, dish out insider info about the area, and host happy hours “in” the Guadalupe River that flows by the property. They’ll also share the rich history of the house—built to last back in 1882 and expanded in 1900—which boasts twenty-inch-thick walls and longleaf pine floors. The spacious rooms here take their names and decorating cues from the world’s rivers: the Thames Parlor is outfitted with English antiques, the Mississippi Room has the flavor of New Orleans, and the Rio Grande Suite boasts upscale borderland appeal. 106 Skyline Road (off FM 480), Center Point, 866-424-0576, rockinriverinn.com; doubles $80-$115, gourmet breakfast included.
The accommodations at the historic Broken Bone Ranch are clustered together on a manicured swath of Hill Country along the west prong of the Medina River. Most of the handsomely restored buildings are best suited to large groups; the remodeled Bauerlein Barn, nearly a century old, and the homey Ranch House, for instance, each sleep up to eight people. But couples can cozy up in the beautifully transformed Mopac Caboose that sits at least shouting distance from the big boys amid a gaggle of peach trees and next to a rushing waterfall. (I’m not sure how relaxing your caboose stay would be, however, if the other places were booked with herds of unknown munchkins.) 6840 FM 377E, Medina, 210-829-4024, brokenboneranch.com; from $80 for the Pioneer Pad with one queen bed to $250 for the barn or ranch house.
If you have plans to single-handedly wipe out the inventory of the antiques shop in Comfort’s historic district, you can’t beat the location of the über-quaint Meyer Bed and Breakfast. And what better place to stay than an antique inn to inspire your quest for the perfect butter churn or pioneer-era table. But be forewarned: The walls between some rooms in the complex of buildings here are as thin as when they were built in 1872 or 1887 or 1920. Maybe people were just quieter back then or maybe teenage sons were less infuriating and didn’t provoke parents to rage so long and loudly into the night. And, although the claw-foot tub in my bathroom beckoned my travel weary body, there wasn’t enough hot water available to fill it. 845 High, Comfort, 830-995-2304, 888-995-6100, meyerbedandbreakfast.com; doubles $79 and up, full breakfast included.
I was so envious of the people who own stunning getaways on the Guadalupe River between Ingram and Hunt, I’m surprised my car wasn’t glowing a jealous green as I drove along Texas Highway 29. Fortunately there’s a snappy inn, the River Oaks Lodge, where I can fake the Hill Country highlife, at least for a night. Decorated by the wife of someone of great political power (I’ll never tell), the fifties-era two-story home is an exuberant kind of Caribbean-splash-meets-comfy-minimalism, a colorful antithesis and welcomed relief to this area’s penchant for what I call Cloying Country. The upside: Lots of windows and patios overlook the lazy river, and baby miniature donkeys cavort on the opposite shore. The downside: Busy Highway 39 runs between the lodge and its pastoral river access. On Texas Highway 39 three miles west of Ingram, 830-367-4214, 800-608-2596, riveroakslodge.com; doubles $95-$200 a night, breakfast included.
If your children think eggs grow on trees, don’t take ’em to see a counselor; take ’em out to the country for a little edification instead. Head to Touch of Utopia, a sweetly restored two-bedroom ranch house turned guest house, nestled in a grove of magnificent old oaks on a 170-acre spread just outside Utopia. Owners John and Jessie McFadin, who live on the property but out of sight, tell me that when families come out for a little decompression, one of the high points of the day for the kids is helping John feed the kids—as in goats. There are creek beds to explore, birds and other wildlife to watch, stars to gaze at, and silence to absorb. And it’s much, much less expensive than years of therapy. On Ranch Road 1050 one mile west of Utopia, 830-966-6264, 888-934-3585, texashillcountrymall.com/ranchhouse; double $85, $5 for each additional guest over 14.
The River Haven Cabins would be my choice for a rollicking family reunion on a Hill Country river. The two-bedroom log cabins, complete with full kitchens and stone fireplaces in the living rooms, are lined up along a cliff above the Rio Frio, with their backs to the parking lot and their porches practically overhanging the rushing water below. Their cozy proximity to one another might be a drawback for couples seeking solitude, but big clans could pass the potato salad and fried chicken to each other without leaving their respective verandas. On Ranch Road 1120 three miles southeast of Leakey, 830-232-5400, riverhavencabins.com; $145-$165 May through September, $88-$108 rest of the year.
Sometimes I just want to relive my childhood road trips when our family required only three things from overnight accommodations: cleanliness, a swimming pool, and to be able to back the Chevy station wagon right up to the door. In this respect, a stay at the Frio Canyon Lodge in downtown Leakey is as good as time travel. Maybe even better, since the ten restored rooms in this 1941 cedar-and-limestone motel are stylishly outfitted with Saltillo tile floors and bright textiles, the grounds are lushly landscaped and laced with hammocks and swings, and fussy old rabbit-eared television sets have been replaced with those that are satellite-fed and remote-controlled. US Highway 83 at Texas Highway 337, 830-232-6800, friocanyonlodge.com; doubles $65 (during winter, spring, and fall) and $85 (during summer).
Brochures about the Guadalupe River Ranch, a deluxe resort outside Boerne, frequently boast about the inn’s star-studded past, when former resident Olivia de Havilland hid out here for a brief time in the late thirties. You’re less likely, however, to find any reference in the glossy literature alluding to the ranch’s longer stint as an infamous bordello that wasn’t shut down until the seventies. And while any vestiges of ill-repute have certainly vanished, an enticing atmosphere of hedonism still lingers here: three gourmet meals a day; a spa, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and a hot tub and sauna; and a gorgeous stretch of Guadalupe River to wallow in or simply gaze upon, all set on 360 acres that you’re free to traverse by foot, bike, or on horseback. 605 FM 474 eight miles northeast of Boerne, 830-537-4837, 800-460-2005, guadaluperiverranch.com; a wide range of prices depending on type of accommodation (stone cottages to family-size suites) and meal plan (breakfast only to three meals a day), cottage doubles from $129-$359, six-person suites from $369-$449.
Looking for a place literally at the end of the road? The accommodations at the nature-loving Canyon of the Eagles certainly fit the bill. But you won’t have to sacrifice style in the name of some measure of wilderness. The lodges, set on a high peninsula overlooking the northern reaches of Lake Buchanan, were designed by the award-winning Texas architecture firm of Lake/Flato and feature inviting window seats, stained concrete floors, rich colors, and killer views. And after a day spent hiking, biking, or birding the 940-acre preserve, or perhaps kayaking underneath waterfalls that spill into the lake, you don’t have to face a dinner of gorp and hot dogs. Instead, how about a sliced tomato and mozzarella salad, baby back ribs, or grilled salmon, all served with an exquisite vista of the lake and occasional live music at the Canyon Room. (Don’t fill up at dinner or you won’t have room for the enormous pancakes or the Brie-and-roasted-apple omelets at brunch on Saturday and Sunday.) 16942 Ranch Road 2341 eighteen miles northwest of Burnet, 512-756-8787, 800-977-0081, canyonoftheeagles.com; doubles $99-$159 depending on season.